For almost forty years, the Tony Award-winning Vineyard Theatre has been a fixture on the Off-Broadway theatre scene, producing premieres of landmark works like How I Learned To Drive, Three Tall Women, The Lyons, Middletown, and Avenue Q, both on Broadway and at their theater in the heart of Union Square. “Dedicated to new work, bold programming and the support of artists,” the Vineyard’s dedication to new work has remained consistent season-to-season.
With their production of Paula Vogel’s Indecent now on Broadway, and the Off-Broadway premiere of Gina Gionfriddo’s Can You Forgive Her?, a Halloween-night tale of a woman drowning in debt, opening in May with Amber Tamblyn, we talked with Literary Associate Miriam Weiner about how a literary department operates and what they look for in new plays.
Could you tell me a little bit about Can You Forgive Her?
Weiner: It’s more interesting to me know even than when we decided to do it, because it’s really talking about the state of America and what’s happening with the middle class and the American Dream. Where people find themselves. And it’s funny—it’s very, very funny… It takes place in this little seaside resort town that’s not what it once was, and everyone’s sort of trying to figure out their best options.
Gina Gionfriddo’s good at that; balancing the dark humor elements with facades that aren’t quite what they seem.
Weiner: Yeah, and it was up in Boston. They did it at the Huntington, then they’re reworking a bunch of it, and then it’s coming here.
But it’s the same team as in Boston?
Weiner: It’s a different cast, but Peter DuBois is still directing it.
And developmentally, at the Vineyard, readings and workshops are a big part of what you do. What’s coming up?
Weiner: We’re programming our spring reading series right now. We typically do a reading series in the spring and one in the fall, and then we do a larger lab for a playwright we want to devote extra time and resources to, to give them a chance with an audience, do the work, and see what it’s like on its feet. It’s very low-tech, but it has blocking and it’s a chance for them to stretch their dramaturgical muscles and see how it’s going. There’s no press, so they can do it in a safer environment.
Throughout the year, we do readings just for staff, we do readings just for artists… We really try to make opportunities for playwrights based on what they tell us they need. It can be really challenging because there are a lot of forms these things take that people are not used to. Trying to stay flexible in what we can offer is a big part of what I think we do well.
What do playwrights come to you looking for most often?
Weiner: A lot of times playwrights just want a chance to get produced. We hear that a lot: “It’s been developed. I’ve been here, here and here developing it and now I want to see it on its feet.” Or, “I think it’s ready, I don’t think it needs development, can you do the play?” And then probably next to that is, “can I have more time than whatever amount of time you’ve offered me?” [laughs]. People are just thirsty for a chance to work.
Could you tell me a bit about your role at the Vineyard?
Weiner: I’m responsible for keeping track of all the submissions that come through agents, through friends of artists and through recommendations. And keeping track of what the theatre is going to go out and see. I do a lot of reading, I do a lot of talking with my artistic directors (Douglas Aibel and Sarah Stern) about what I think is exciting and which playwrights I think are exciting. And I run an internship program, where I train people to do all that.
Having seen not only all the shows the Vineyard does but also all the shows the Vineyard might potentially have done, what do you think distinguishes a Vineyard show?
Weiner: That’s a great question. I think the Vineyard is not afraid to explore dark, difficult subject matter and the complexities of what it means to be human. And also not afraid to refuse to lose sight of the humanity in that type of situation. So, for instance, we have heroes that are complex. They do bad things, but we understand why. It makes me really proud that we don’t let audiences off the hook about being able to relate to those difficult, dark places. And then at the same time I think we do a good job of balancing that out with really joyful pieces, that are full of music and dancing and what’s beautiful. Kid Victory had so much darkness in it and so much sadness in it, and yet there’s this beauty to the relationships and how people free themselves. People are freed by the same people they’re trapped by.
That kind of subject matter is big for John Kander (Kid Victory’s co-writer with Greg Pierce). The Vineyard has become a late-career home for him, I understand.
Weiner: Yeah, but he did an early work here, Flora the Red Menace, a long time ago. At least twenty years ago.
But that’s been an ongoing relationship.
Weiner: It’s been an ongoing relationship with us, and with Susan Stroman (Flora’s choreographer) as well. And then he did The Scottsboro Boys, and then Landing and then now Kid Victory. It’s really interesting to see his work, and you realize that when talented people are given a chance, over the course of the lifetime, to improve and create and express themselves, you get the impression that it takes no effort to do something. That it’s always meant to be and was always there and you’re sort of surprised you didn’t know about it. That’s been an interesting thing to see in the artists who come back; “Oh, they’re getting better, more essential, more who they are.”
You get a lot of play submissions. What is something that you look for most in the playwrights who send scripts your way?
Weiner: We were just reading a play submission by a very well-known playwright, and we were sitting around saying “it’s undeniable that it’s this person.” We know exactly who it is. If the name wasn’t on the script we would know it was this person’s script. And so, you’re really looking to hear “what is the voice?” And that really comes off the page. Sometimes there are other things that make you excited about a play. The subject matter, the form of it. Is the person in control of it? Or, is the person all over the place but they’re really striving for something? They have a clarity of vision even if the aesthetic hasn’t matched it yet. That’s what I think is the creativity of the job that I have, is to try to imagine: what is it the playwright is trying to tell me, and see if I can believe that they can get there. And then that is the playwright we want to work with.
Are there any “don’ts” you can think of, for people sending you scripts?
Weiner: Well, there are “do’s.” A lot of times people think they’ve got to follow the rules and go through this playbook someone told them about in a class that they took. The most important thing to remember is that this is a business of relationships, and you want to make art with people you’ve come to trust and know. Even when you’re being rejected, it’s still an opportunity to create a relationship.